The World Cup Abuse Nightmare

Do brutal attacks on women by their husbands or boyfriends surge during the World Cup? According to a May 25 press release by England's Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), "cases of domestic abuse increase by nearly 30% on England match days." The shocking 30 percent figure was from a study prepared and publicized by the British Home Office. Determined to stem the assaults, officials flooded pubs and the airwaves with graphic warnings. "Don't let the World Cup leave its mark on you," warned a poster distributed by the West Yorkshire Police. It showed the bare back of a cowering woman marked by bruises, cuts, and the imprint of a man's shoe. News stories with titles such as "Women's World Cup Abuse Nightmare" informed women that the games could uncover, "for the first time, a darker side to their partner."

Many Americans will recall a similar scare surrounding Super Bowl Sunday in January 1993. Newspapers and television networks reported that the incidence of domestic violence increased by 40 percent during the annual football classic. Journalists were soon talking of a "day of dread" and referring to the game as the "abuse bowl." Experts held forth on how male viewers, intoxicated and pumped up with testosterone, could "explode like mad linemen, leaving girlfriends, wives, and children beaten." During its telecast, NBC ran a public-service announcement urging men to remain calm during the game and reminding them they could go to jail if they attacked their wives.

The 30 percent claim was based on a cherry-picked sample of police districts; it failed to correct for seasonal differences and essentially ignored match days that showed little or no increase in domestic violence.

In that roiling sea of media credulity, Ken Ringle, a reporter at the Washington Post, did something no other reporter thought to do: He checked the facts. He quickly discovered that there was no evidence linking football and domestic violence. The source for the 40 percent factoid was a mistaken remark by an activist at a press conference in Pasadena, Calif. Today, what has come to be known as the Super Bull Sunday hoax, is a staple in discussions of urban legends. Could the World Cup Abuse Nightmare be a copycat fraud?

"A stunt based on misleading figures," is the verdict of BBC legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg and producer Wesley Stephenson. They recently investigated the alleged link between the televised World Cup games and violence in the home for their weekly program Law in Action. On June 22--day twelve of the 2010 World Cup--they aired the story. It included an interview with a prominent Cambridge University statistician, Sheila Bird, whom they had asked to review the Home Office study and its finding of a 30 percent increase in domestic abuse. She found it to be so amateurish and riddled with flaws that it could not be taken seriously. The 30 percent claim was based on a cherry-picked sample of police districts; it failed to correct for seasonal differences and essentially ignored match days that showed little or no increase in domestic violence. Professor Bird also noted that improved police practices can lead to increased reports of violence but do not necessarily indicate more violence. A telltale sign that something is amiss in the Home Office is that it also disseminates the claim that "one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence." That impossibly high figure may be the result of a rather expansive definition of "domestic violence"--which includes not only physical and sexual violence but also emotional and "financial" abuse.

The BBC Law in Action program also unearthed a serious study by the London Metropolitan Police Authority that contradicted the "official" 30 percent finding. But thanks to a sensational media campaign sanctioned by the Home Office, the reasonable and credible findings of the Metropolitan Police went unnoticed.

On June 27, England suffered a humiliating defeat by Germany. A few days later, news stories reported a "shocking" surge in domestic assaults in some districts. According to the Telegraph, "Kent police said it witnessed a 400 percent rise in domestic abuse" on the day of the loss. But as the BBC investigators warned, percentages can be misleading when the raw numbers are small. There were 26 incidents in south Kent on the day of the rout, compared to an average weekend total of six. Newspapers also carried stories of a spike in Lancashire reported by an ambulance service. But, according to Detective Inspector Derry Crorken of the local police force's public protection unit, "We have not seen a big rise in callouts during or after the football compared to other weekends." For the time being, excited reports by British journalists on this topic should be discounted heavily.

In the past 17 years, despite occasional efforts, no one has been able to link the Super Bowl to domestic battery in the United States. A major study in 2007, by two University of Alabama researchers, examined 2,387 crisis-call records over a three-year period. The authors also interviewed abused women and shelter staff. Their conclusion: "The widely held belief that more women seek shelter during 'drinking holidays' such as New Year's and the Super Bowl was unsubstantiated."

Rozenberg and Stephenson interviewed me for their BBC story because I had written about the U.S. Super Bowl fiction in my 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism? Why, they wanted to know, do such myths have such strong appeal? It is easy to understand why the American version resonated so powerfully in 1993. At the time, the "women are victims, men are brutes" style of feminism was all the rage. Many middle-class women--whose chances of being assaulted by their husbands were close to zero--were riveted by ominous pronouncements like this one from Gloria Steinem's 1992 bestseller, Revolution from Within: "The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man on the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home." It was in 1993 that the National Coalition against Domestic Violence circulated a brochure claiming that half of married American women would face violence from their mate and that "more than a third are battered repeatedly every year." The Super Bowl story was a handy bandwagon for this popular but twisted creed.

The motives behind the British scare are harder to fathom. It was not the work of feminist hard-liners but rather of a network of government bureaucrats, social-service workers, police personnel, and public officials--including the new home secretary, Theresa May. History offers many examples of depraved societies pretending they are better than they really are. England, an enlightened and humane country, is perversely fascinated by stories that falsely depict its citizens as corrupt and degenerate. Those behind the exaggerated crisis are not going to recant in the face of mere facts. When the BBC investigators presented Carmel Napier, the deputy chief constable of Gwent, with the evidence that the study she and her colleagues were promoting was specious, she replied: "If it has saved lives, then it is worth it."

In fact, it does harm. The BBC's Law in Action also interviewed Davina James-Hanman, director of the AVA (Against Violence & Abuse) Project. She was concerned that the World Cup scare could place truly at-risk women in harm's way. She explained that a woman in a violent relationship is often eager to blame external factors as the cause of the attacks. "It worries me that their safety planning may be affected by this focus on the World Cup . . . that she's maybe getting the message that if she just hangs on until the World Cup is over everything will be okay." Surely women at risk for violence are best served by truth. By allowing sensational half-truths and untruths to flourish, officials not only channel scarce resources into dubious programs, they also diminish public trust.

There is another serious reason why countries such as the United States and Britain should not exaggerate the victim status of their female citizens. Horrific and systematic abuses of women occurring in other parts of the world demand our attention. In May, while British officials were preparing for the "expected" explosion of domestic battery from World Cup watchers, the Islamic Republic of Iran was granted a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Human-rights activists protested, pointing out Iran's appalling record of tyranny, cruelty, and injustice to women. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shot back that Iranian women are far better off than women in the West. "What is left of women's dignity in the West?" he asked. "Is there any love and kindness left?" He then declared that in Europe almost 70 percent of housewives are beaten by their husbands.

That was a self-serving lie. British women, with few exceptions, are safe and free. Iranian women are not. But the lurid posters of women's beaten bodies and bloody T-shirts (one with the legend "strikeher" emblazoned above a big zero) and bogus statistics give wings to such lies. How that helps women coping with real abuse in Britain, the United States, or anywhere else remains a mystery.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar and the director of the W. H. Brady program at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/knape

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